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Nattering neuroscientists meet Sting

September 1, 2009 |  6:35 am


Not many books give equal weight to the thoughts of Daniel C. Dennett and Sting. After reading Daniel J. Levitin's "The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature," it’s not hard to see why.  At times, the book has the feel of a cocktail party: In one corner, neuroscientists natter about basal ganglia and oxytocin, while over by the bridge mix, songwriters discuss chord progressions and speculate on the origins of music in joyful, wordless singing. (That would be Sting.)  Levitin acts as host, lubricating the conversation with anecdotes and eagerly assuring new arrivals of what excellent terms he's on with the higher-status guests.

"The World in Six Songs" comes hard on the heels of Levitin’s 2006 bestseller "This is Your Brain on Music." (“Brain" has been a publishing buzzword of late, though hardly on a par with "Obama" or "Wall Street.") The earlier book was an accessible recap of recent research into the neurological roots of musical perception and performance. Levitin comes to this territory with no small authority: before coming to direct McGill University's musical cognition research lab, he was a record producer and a sideman with Mel Torme and David Byrne. 

The new book is less technical, and more influenced by Levitin's zeal for evolutionary psychology, the semi-scientific, semi-philosophical field that attempts to do for human behavior what Darwin and his followers did for joint structure and depth perception.

Levitin follows such recent popularizers as Dennett ("Consciousness Explained") and Steven Pinker in regarding many of our social and cultural practices as the "hard-wired" residue of what happened to be adaptive for our earliest ancestors.  On a key point, he parts ways with (especially) Pinker, who sees the pleasure we take in music, and art in general, as "evolutionary cheesecake," an inessential by-product of abilities and predilections that arose for unrelated reasons. Levitin's view is closer to that of aesthetician Dennis Dutton, whose recent "The Art Instinct" dissects Pinker's cheesecake metaphor at greater length.

Levitin believes that music has long served purposes essential to survival, including promoting group cohesion and carrying useful information in memorable forms. He also contends that six broad categories -- songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love -- are found in nearly all times and cultures, and capture music's deepest functions.

A key move that ties arguments of this sort to the evolution of the brain concerns pleasure. For Levitin, "if something feels good, evolution must have made it so -- evolution must have provided a reward mechanism for synchronized movement and music-making, in the same way that evolution provided mechanisms of reward when we eat and have sex." That could be true, but when it comes to practices that took thousands of generation to emerge and aren’t embodied in anything so concrete as the fossil record, filling in this framework requires a good deal of reverse-engineering.  A rule of thumb for when a science writer is going beyond the evidence is how often he appeals to how things "may have" gone, and Levitin makes liberal use of the phrase. We learn, for example, that "early musicians may have been able to forge closer bonds with those around them; they may have been better able to communicate emotionally, diffuse confrontation, and ease interpersonal tensions." That could be true, but as a story about how musicianship arose and perpetuated itself, the emotionally connected musician is just one appealing myth among myriad possibilities. 

It would also come as news to anyone who has dated a sullen bass player or a passive-aggressive drummer.

Often as not, Levitin's explanations concern functions of music that have a strong social component and would be unlikely to arise before complex patterns of human interaction were in place.  The "human nature" part of his argument frequently rests on his conviction that those of our ancestors who liked (and were good at) turning the possibilities of organized sound to such purposes were favored by natural selection.  (This is usually the point where "must be" shades to "may have.")  The result: whichever features of the brain accounted for these pre-historically acquired skills and preferences are by now "hard-wired" into our cognitive architecture.  Unfortunately, given that pieces of music aren't, literally speaking, organic entities that reproduce their characteristics by passing down genetic information through biochemical mechanisms, Levitin’s frequent assertions that music and the brain “co-evolved” embody this striking idea in a potentially misleading metaphor.

None of this is to say that Levitin isn't an entertaining and thought-provoking guide. His respect for and curiosity about a wide range of musical traditions is evident, and, thanks to his own background, his writing is refreshingly free of the swipes at the cognitive decadence of popular music and its audiences that makes similar books all but unreadable for anyone under sixty (Robert Jourdain's "Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy").  But when it turns out that cavepeople’s attempts to warn their precious offspring about nearby alligators lie at the root of a class of "knowledge songs" that explains both why it's easier to remember the Preamble of the Constitution when it's set to music and why prog-rockers Rush write paeans to "Natural Science," it's hard not to feel that Levitin's six categories are moving targets. That's okay: cocktail chat doesn't stay on one topic for long either.

-- Franklin Bruno

Franklin Bruno is the author of "Armed Forces" (Continuum Books); his most recent recording is Local Currency (Fayettenam Records).  He lives and writes in Jackson Heights, Queens, and sometimes blogs at http://nervousuntothirst.blogspot.com.

Illustration: Calef Brown For The Times with Carolyn Kellogg